As with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, Burton once again brings out the kid in all of us, but he never fails to touch the inner adult. That probably explains the presence of Johnny Depp, Burton's muse and alter ego, in every Burton production (here he voices the delicate hero-bridegroom, Victor Van Dort). Tough guys like Donnie Brasco aside, Depp embodies the kind of sly, vaguely discomfiting innocence -- one part Michael Jackson, one part con artist -- that's the hallmark of the classic Burton protagonist. Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter's vocal portrayal of the dead heroine, an engaging mixture of the tender and the tart, represents another bonus. Burton's off-screen love, Bonham Carter finds herself in quite a different realm here than the impeccably mannered dramas of the Merchant-Ivory canon, and she seems to be thoroughly enjoying herself.
As you've probably heard by now, the tireless director brings this entire bleak comedy to the screen via a painstaking throwback process -- stop-motion puppetry -- that Hollywood's new wave of digitized cartooneers have long since abandoned as tedious and outmoded. Still, the retro craftsman sticks to his guns, and his animation stand, just as he did with 1993's vivid Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton's nothing if not content in the belief that slow is better than fast, visually speaking. Using his brand of stop-motion animation, it takes an army of lab-slaves a full day to produce two or three seconds of usable footage, so the Burton method is not likely to provoke some kind of technical counterrevolution. For his part, he simply thinks the form is more beautiful, a view not without merit.
The gleefully morbid visual treats on display in Corpse Bride, which advances Nightmare's esthetics, include the bride's rotting face, which has a beauty all its own, and a wiseass green maggot (Enn Reitel) that pops out of the blue-skinned heroine's eye socket and, in a fair approximation of Peter Lorre, announces to its hostess: "If I hadn't just been sitting there, I would have thought you'd lost your mind." Every Burton movie is a kind of hallucinatory fun house -- recall the teeming miniature village of Beetlejuice or the dancing armies of Oompa-Loompas in Charlie -- and it's become increasingly difficult for Burton and his composer-of-choice, Danny Elfman, to top past production numbers. Here, they manage to do it at least once with the unbridled gyrations of an underworld jazz band composed of swinging skeletons and headed by a dervish named Bonejangles, voiced by Elfman himself. Production designer Alex McDowell, puppet designer Carlos Grangel, co-director Mike Johnson, and probably 12 dozen others all deserve credit for the high style and dark wit, but it's Burton who conducts the band with a firm hand.
As usual in Burtonworld, dazzle outdistances plot by light years. Screenwriters John August, Caroline Thompson, and Pamela Pettler make their own contributions to this debauched fairy tale, but the bit on which it turns is pretty slim: When Victor's intrusive parents arrange to marry him off to shy Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), he nervously forgets his wedding vows, takes to a forest to practice, and inadvertently proposes to the Corpse Bride, who happily accepts. Then she promptly spirits him off to the Land of the Dead, which is to the repressed Victorian realm of his past as New Orleans (in its former glory) was to Salt Lake City. The ecstatic freaks Victor meets down below include a dead dog with spirit and a squad of spiders who spin him a new suit. From there, the black mischief proceeds without fetter, happily inundated by the Burton whimsy, which is not just great fun but high art.